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Climate change brings new urgency in Utah

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31 2013 11:25 a.m. MST

Ken and Dottie Wanberg inspect a map as they try to gather news of their second home, which is located inside an evacuated area in the Glacier View subdivision, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, outside The Forks in Livermore, Colo. (Associated Press) Ken and Dottie Wanberg inspect a map as they try to gather news of their second home, which is located inside an evacuated area in the Glacier View subdivision, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, outside The Forks in Livermore, Colo. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The unpredictability that comes with a changing climate is prompting many in the public policy arena as well as land managers and wildlife biologists to rethink the threat, with a new report saying the time for urgent action is now.

The report, "Wildlife in a Warming World: Confronting the Climate Crisis," was released Wednesday by the National Wildlife Federation, detailing how climate impacts are playing out in eight regions of the United States.

Stressing that the changing climate represents the biggest single threat to wildlife and their habitat, the report notes changes in migration patterns of birds, increased interactions between man and bears, and species that are simply having a tough time in the struggle against extreme weather, sea level rise and wildfires.

“Some of America’s most iconic species — from moose to sandhill cranes to sea turtles — are seeing their homes transformed by rapid climate change,” said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. “Climate disruption is the most serious threat facing America’s wildlife and requires action at the local, state and federal levels.”

Wildfire near Promontory Point, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Wildfire near Promontory Point, Friday, May 25, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Among the highlights of the report:

• Of 305 species of birds in North America studied, more than half of those have expanded their range northward by an average of 35 miles in the past four decades

• Climate change is creating conditions fueling more mega-wildfires, which are having devastating impacts on fish and wildlife habitats and are putting people and property in harm’s way

• Alaska has warmed about twice as much as the continental United States and warming is severely altering the Arctic landscape including melting permafrost. The warming is causing many uniquely polar habitats — like the sea ice that polar bears, seals, and walrus require to hunt — to rapidly shrink.

The report points to how those "mega-fires" wreaked havoc on Western landscapes in 2012, Utah among them.

Joel Ferry stands on a section of his property where 300 cattle would normally be grazing but cannot due to the drought on Thursday, August 16, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Joel Ferry stands on a section of his property where 300 cattle would normally be grazing but cannot due to the drought on Thursday, August 16, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"Larger, more frequent and more intense wildfires make it harder for wildlife to recover afterward," the report said. While noting that fire is a natural cleanser for ecosystems in many instances, mega-fires leave startling devastation in their wake.

The 2012 wildfire season was only the third time since 1960 more than 9 million acres burned in the nation and was the third worst on record. In Utah, more than 400,000 acres burned and three lives were lost — two men who died in a tanker crash and another man whose body was found in a trailer in Sanpete County.

State estimates put the cost of fighting the fires at $50 million, with Utah expected to pay a good chunk of that — perhaps $25 million.

Raging wildfires that strained resources prompted Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to request the organization of a committee specifically designed to come up with strategies to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildland blazes.

Wild horses graze in the Onaqui area of Tooele County.  The herd is doing ok right now in a drought stricken summer but this winter may be another story. A fire near Lookout Pass burned the majority of area the horses migrate to for winter feeding.  Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Wild horses graze in the Onaqui area of Tooele County. The herd is doing ok right now in a drought stricken summer but this winter may be another story. A fire near Lookout Pass burned the majority of area the horses migrate to for winter feeding. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Department of Agriculture spokesman Larry Lewis said the committee of about 30 people has been meeting regularly and will likely have draft recommendations ready in the spring. Representatives are mapping the state into five regions that detail the vulnerabilities inherent in that area — from pine beetle infestations to encroaching urbanization to lack of water resources.

"The impact goes beyond wildlife. There is the soot that is in the air that impacts the Wasatch Front and flooding and the silting of rivers and reservoirs," Lewis said. "We recognize that weather is an important part of this. During times of very dry conditions like last year, the potential for more fires and bigger ones is higher."

One of the most extreme vulnerabilities when it comes to wildfires is fostered by the pervasive presence of noxious weeds, with the report pointing to the rampant takeover of cheatgrass in native sagebrush habitat.

Dead and dying trees are visible during a media tour in the Uinta National Forest, Friday, July 13, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Dead and dying trees are visible during a media tour in the Uinta National Forest, Friday, July 13, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The cheatgrass interferes with forage for important species like pronghorn and sage grouse and dries out quickly, stoking the threat for greater incidence of large fires.

Lewis said cheatgrass is the state's Public Enemy No. 1 in its "War on Weeds."  The department announced Wednesday that $1 million is available in grants for its noxious weed control problem. The funding represents the second consecutive year that Utah lawmakers have ponied up that money dollars to combat the problem.

Robert Hougaard, the department's plant industry director, said non-native plants consume landscapes much like wildfires.

"Invasive, non-native weeds are similar to a slow-burning biological wildfire that is spreading out of control through areas of Utah," Hougaard said. Agricultural officials estimate that nationwide, the problem causes crop losses and weed-control costs that are in excess of $5 billion.

A media tour, hosted by the Utah Farm Bureau, in the Uinta National Forest, Friday, July 13, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) A media tour, hosted by the Utah Farm Bureau, in the Uinta National Forest, Friday, July 13, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The report lists a number of steps that should be taken to combat the threat to wildlife and communities.

“We know what’s causing the climate changes Americans are seeing in their own backyards and we have the solutions to secure our climate and safeguard our wildlife for future generations,” said Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive officer of the federation.

“What we need is the political leadership to make smart energy choices and wise investments in protecting our natural resources. We can’t leave this problem for our children and grandchildren to fix — they’ll judge us based on what we do now.”

Among those recommendations are cutting carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030, transitioning to cleaner energy like renewable energy and implementing climate-smart approaches to conservation.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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